How Pervasive Leadership Can Help You Manage Successful Projects


Jean Richardson shares a story about how the idea of pervasive leadership can help you manage a successful project. In order to practice pervasive leadership, one must change one's mental model of "I" and "thou," act locally and think holistically, and enact empathetic stewardship.

The final retrospective on the Hepburn project was complete. And next week, she would be starting another one: the Whistler project. Lisle had one more wrap-up report to complete for the project management office. She kicked off her pumps and wriggled her aching feet. One lock of long, dark brown hair fell into her eyes as she arched and stretched her lower back. The matching blazer over the back of her chair was an indication of the presentation she had made earlier that day.

She had completed the interviews with the Whistler team and the sponsor this week while wrapping up the retrospective and closing phase activities on Hepburn. It took awhile to get the Whistler team to understand they had the right to hire her or not.

From her perspective, the Acme Corporation’s PMO’s recommendation was only a recommendation. It had cost her some social credits with the head of the PMO to stand her ground on that. But she had learned the hard way to stick to the precepts of pervasive leadership:   

  • Change your mental model of I and thou.
  • Act locally; think wholistically.
  • Enact empathetic stewardship.

Ever since she started applying those three guidelines in her work, projects had been, if not truly easier, then certainly more regularly successful. The “not necessarily easier” part probably came from the fact that she had a tendency to take on the toughest, most screwed-up messes around.

She had had the same series of conversations with the Whistler sponsor. He also thought she would be his only option. Lisle doesn’t work that way.  She prefers to be invited in rather than imposed on a project.

On Monday morning the fifteen-person Whistler team showed up at 9 a.m. in West Riding, and Lisle was there to greet them.

“Good morning, everyone,” she greeted them. “As we discussed last week during the interview phase, I work a bit differently. Of course, I’ll want you all involved in the project assessment. I’ve negotiated a ten-day hiatus for us to assess the project, replan, and propose a ‘get-well’ plan. But before we do that, I’d like to have a conversation that I have found to be a key conversation on any project. There are three things we need to talk about so we can ensure we have a sound partnership to build on as we go forward.

“First, what is the purpose we each have in being on this project?” Some team members snorted. “If it’s just about the paycheck, that’s fine, but let’s all be clear with each other,” she said.

“Second, when we look at our common purposes in going forward together, is there anyone who feels their purpose doesn’t fit with the project or that the project is no longer compelling? If so, I will be happy to advocate for a reassignment, giving you a positive recommendation based on your engagement to this point.” Some team members narrowed their eyes; other shifted in their chairs.

“Third,” she continued, “if you commit to continuing on this project, you agree to do so based on the understanding that we all have joint accountability for delivering this project. The system we will put in place allows us to highlight risks and issues very quickly and requires that we speak up for what we need very quickly. Once our analysis shows we can turn the project around, we agree we have no one else to blame if we can’t deliver.”

The room was absolutely quiet.

“And, fourth,” Lisle went on, “we will commit to the greatest degree possible to be open and compassionately honest with me, yourself, and each other about how you think the project is going, what your challenges are, and any changes that need to be made in order for us to be successful. We’ll be having this kind of conversation on a daily basis, and in a more in-depth manner at the end of each iteration.”

“How do we know you won’t just go tattle on us to management?” Sandy challenged her.

“As discussed last week,” Lisle said, “that’s not to my benefit. I hold myself to these same standards, and you are welcome to raise it in front of the group any time you feel I am not meeting them. My stance with the PMO is pretty much the same as it is with you.”

“Sandy,” Jamey, the technical lead, said, turning to face her, “we checked her out with her last project team and with Dave last week. She checks out.” Dave, Lisle knew, was the head of the PMO.

“She’s the sixth PM we’ve had this year, and—” Sandy began.

“Sandy, we had this conversation last week,” Jake said. Lisle noticed that he was still wearing the Harley Davidson jacket and heavy, leather black boots he had been wearing all week. “We all voted on giving her a chance. That means give her a chance.”

Sandy gave him a long, level look and sat back in her chair. The room was still quiet.

“So,” Lisle said, “shall we get started?”

User Comments

Valerie D'Sa-Mayer's picture

I found this article so informative that I joined this community just so I could leave a comment.  What a brilliant way to explain concepts that are otherwise explained in drab ways.  Looking forward to more of the same as it is especially useful to anyone who is new or relatively new to the fields of project management/Agile.


December 6, 2016 - 2:07pm

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